RALEIGH, N.C. — A contractor working for the CIA was indicted Thursday in connection with the beating death of a prisoner in Afghanistan -- becoming the first civilian to face criminal charges related to U.S. treatment of prisoners in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The four-count indictment was handed up in Raleigh against David A. Passaro, 38, for the June 21, 2003, death of a prisoner in U.S. custody.
The indictment charged Passaro with two counts each of assault and assault with a dangerous weapon. He faces a total of up to 40 years in prison and up to a $1 million fine.
"We were stunned today when he was picked up," said Passaro's attorney, Gerald Beaver. "We've been in consultation with the government since March, and it was my understanding that he would be allowed to surrender if there were any indictments."
Meanwhile, in Washington, D.C., Attorney General John Ashcroft said Passaro was accused of "brutally assaulting" the man while questioning him over two days. Passaro allegedly beat the prisoner repeatedly with his hands and feet and a flashlight.
The prisoner, identified as Abdul Wali, was being held at a U.S. detention facility in Asadabad, in the Kunar province of Afghanistan.
Ashcroft said the indictment sent a message that "the United States will not tolerate criminal acts of brutality" against detainees.
According to court documents, Wali had surrendered voluntarily and was being questioned by Passaro about requent rocket attacks directed at the U.S. facility, close to the Pakistani border.
Ashcroft said al-Qaida and Taliban fighters were common in that part of the region.
Wali died in his prison cell after Passaro beat him "using his hands and feet and a large flashlight" during two days of interrogations, the indictment said.
Passaro, 38, of Lillington, appeared in federal court in Raleigh after being arrested on post at Fort Bragg in Fayetteville. Authorities said he was quiet and cooperative on the ride to Raleigh and also in the courtroom.
Following his court appearance, Passaro -- who was shackled around his wrists and ankles -- was ordered held without bond. He was driven away in a van to an undisclosed location.
Passaro will be back in the Raleigh courtroom for a detention hearing Tuesday.
The indictment did not say whether he worked for a specific company but said he was in Afghanistan "on behalf of the CIA, engaging in paramilitary activities."
Asked why Passaro was not charged with torture or other more serious offenses, Ashcroft said the indictment was based on the best evidence available. He said it is possible more serious charges could be brought if new evidence is found.
The military has confirmed that Passaro was formerly a Green Beret medic and currently a civilian employee of the Army's Special Operations Command.
The Army said Passaro was not an employee of the Special Operations Command at the time the alleged crime occurred. The command said Passaro has been employed as a medical specialist since early 2002 but took leave without pay for two months last summer.
Passaro was a Hartford, Conn., police officer for a few months in 1990 before being fired after his arrest by the Connecticut State Police on unknown charges. He still was on his initial probationary status with the police department at the time of that arrest.
The CIA often uses independent contractors who are hired for short-term assignments. While they sometimes are recruited by and work through a private company, the individuals can also be contracted directly by the agency. They are known as "green badgers" for the color of their ID cards. Regular employees have blue badges.
Wali's is among three detainee deaths being investigated by the Justice Department and CIA's inspector general in Iraq and Afghanistan, where allegations of abuse include reports from former prisoners of hoodings, beatings and sexual abuse.
The Justice Department declined to bring charges in a fourth death.
Wali's case initially was referred to the Justice Department by the CIA in November.
U.S. officials said Passaro's contract with the CIA began in December 2002 and that he arrived at the Afghan base in mid-May 2003, only a few weeks before the alleged abuse occurred.
Federal law allows civilian charges to be brought against U.S. citizens for crimes overseas if they are not under military jurisdiction.
"We take allegations of wrongdoing very seriously, and it is important to bear in mind that CIA immediately reported these allegations to the agency's inspector general and the Department of Justice," said CIA spokesman Mark Mansfield.
"While we cannot comment on specifics of this case, given that it is currently before the courts, the CIA does not support or condone unlawful activities of any sort and has an obligation to report possible violations of the law to the appropriate authorities," Mansfield said. "This was done promptly."
The charges come amid multiple ongoing investigations by the Defense Department and other agencies into allegations of prisoner abuse at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison. No civilians have been charged yet, though Ashcroft said the Defense Department had referred one case to the Justice Department for investigation.
Seven soldiers were charged by the military.
Democratic lawmakers and other critics say the Bush administration set the legal stage for the abuse by circulating a series of memos that appear to justify use of torture and argue that the president's wartime powers trump laws meant to protect prisoners.
President Bush and Ashcroft repeatedly have said that no orders were given to the military or CIA that would violate U.S. antitorture laws or the protections of the Geneva Conventions.
Some 2,000 prisoners have been held at the jails since U.S. troops entered Afghanistan in late 2001 to topple the Taliban regime for granting sanctuary to Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaida network, according to the military.